Eric Schlosser

Fast Food Nation

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Fast Food Nation Summary

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Today fast food is part of the American way of life. But most Americans are unaware of the story behind the growth of fast food, and of social consequences that have resulted from the rise of the fast food industry. In Fast Food Nation Eric Schlosser examines the rise of the fast food industry in America following World War II. He also provides the results of his research into the current practices of fast food businesses, including research into the chemical composition of the foods served in fast food restaurants.

Schlosser portrays the fast food industry as an industry founded on quite unsavory principles; his description of the impact of fast food on the health of U.S. citizens, on U.S. workers, and on the environment is enough to make the reader’s stomach turn.

The rise of the fast food industry, Schlosser posits, was the result of some very cunning business decisions made by entrepreneurs at the end of World War II – among the first of who included those who built the first drive-thrus in California, where more and more people were driving cars. This would be the first in a series of social changes that paved the way for fast food chains to become as successful and popular as they are today. The founding fathers of fast food discovered ways of producing, distributing, and marketing their products by means of which they were able to make a fortune. Each innovation, Schlosser explains, emerged out of a particular historical development that allowed for it. Schlosser also explains how each innovation also resulted in unfortunate social consequences.

Some of the developments that worked to help the fast food industry involved ways of cutting costs of doing business. For example, it was during the time immediately following World War II that frozen food technology emerged. Since it was cheaper to buy frozen foods than it was to buy their fresh counterparts, frozen foods – such as French fries – became the mainstay of restaurants, such as McDonald’s. Early pioneers of fast food also found that it was cheaper to make production of foods such as fries centralized. The result was that small, independent farms dedicated to cultivation of fresh produce could no longer compete. A further result was that the food being offered to the consumer lacked the nutritional content of fresh produce.

Companies, such as McDonald’s, found that they could save even more money by designing their restaurants’ kitchens to function like assembly lines. In other words, they designed their kitchens so that the food items for sale on the menu could be cooked, packaged, and served according to a uniform, mechanical series of operations that could be performed by anyone. With the adoption of assembly line techniques in the kitchen, fast food restaurants no longer had any need for skilled workers to prepare the food they served. As employees became easily replaceable, they lost all the rights and privileges of skilled laborers. With no bargaining power, they were forced to settle for low wages and to give up and demand for things such as job security of medical benefits.

Another area where the assembly line model was implemented was in slaughterhouses. While transforming slaughterhouses to function like assembly lines made the price of meat cheaper, Schlosser explains, it did not make the job of those working there any safer. In fact, it became much more dangerous. But fast food owners were able to find a ready supply of labor by bringing over illegal immigrants by bus from Mexico. These workers were willing to take jobs in the slaughterhouses only out of a desperate wish to escape the poverty of their native environment. From Schlosser’s point of view, thus, profits gained by mechanizing slaughterhouses were at the expense of the exploitation of the poor.

Other examples of ingenuity in the fast food industry involved ways of increasing demand for their products. As already mentioned, some of the first fast food restaurants were drive-thru restaurants, which became popular due to the increase in automobile drivers after World War II. For Schlosser, this is one of many examples of how the fast food industry took advantage of the growing culture of convenience in the United States. It also sought to make things more convenient by offering fewer menu options. Making the menu smaller made it easier for consumers to choose what to order. It even went so far as specialize in serving only food that could be consumed without utensils, thus eliminating the hassle of having to cut one’s food.

Besides offering customers a convenient dining experience, fast food restaurants offered something else: familiarity. Pioneers of fast food made the deliberate decision that every one of their restaurants – e.g. every McDonald’s – would offer exactly the same items on the menu. Such homogeneity across restaurants meant that one always knew what one was getting whenever one dined at any location which was part of a fast food chain.

Schlosser presents the fast food industry as a corrosive force on society. However, it has been pointed out that at least some of his charges against fast food have not been firmly established. For example, Schlosser argues that by establishing centralized slaughterhouses from which they buy meat, fast food restaurants put more people at risk for food sicknesses, such as E. coli. His reasoning seems to be that since the meat all comes from a single centralized location, a single outbreak of poisoning from, say, E. coli, would inevitably spread throughout the country. While Schlosser’s reasoning is plausible, he does not offer enough by way of scientific studies to show that, as a matter of fact, there has been an increase in food poisoning as a result of people consuming more fast food. Thus one might have to take some of Schlosser’s complaints against the fast food industry with a degree of skepticism.